This Week in History: Birth of Napoleon’s Greatest Diplomat

This week, over 250 years ago, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was born. Talleyrand (the man in the flowing white wig stood directly behind the table) was a French politician and diplomat who served under, and later conspired against, Napoleon.

Talleyrand was born into aristocracy and was able to use his family connections to gain access to high-ranking positions in the Catholic Church, before moving into politics after the French Revolution. Even in his days working for the Church, the quiet life seemed to elude him. He lasted just two years in Britain before being kicked out on orders of the Prime Minister. When he finally made it back to France, he was made Foreign Minister but almost immediately created the XYZ Affair by asking the American government for bribes, a scandal which very nearly led to all-out war between the two countries.

Around this time, Talleyrand began writing to Napoleon, who was busy tearing through Italy in his first military campaign, and the two men became close allies. Before too long, Napoleon’s crushing victories abroad began translating to political power back home, and when he made plans to overthrow the government, Talleyrand was right there with him. When the dust had settled and the government had fallen, he was made Foreign Minister again.

talleyrand-close-up
He was also a fierce womaniser. Credit: Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

And so began a relationship that made Blair and Brown look like gossiping high school students. Talleyrand grew tired of his bosses constant wars, even if they made him ridiculously wealthy.

By 1807, he’d resigned, but in a move as slippery as an eel, he kept Napoleon’s trust whilst simultaneously selling state secrets to hostile powers. France couldn’t keep warring with Europe forever, and when power started to slip from Napoleon’s grip in 1814, Talleyrand was once again right there beside him… to lead the French Senate against its Emperor and seize power for himself. After all, he was generally only an ally to the winners, and when the Monarchy returned so did his allegiance for it.

This was certainly a man you wouldn’t want to trust, but for whom you’d do anything to have on your side. Brilliant and sly in equal measures, Talleyrand has since divided opinion almost as strongly as the Emperor he served under for so long.

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